These days Wałęsa is a non-person
even if his face pops up on television from time to time. In today’s
A home-grown gem
The first time I laid eyes on him
was on the 18 or 19 August 1980. It was midday, the early days of the
And a few minutes later, when an electric cart drove out of the shipyard gates carrying a plaster model of the Three Crosses Memorial which was to be erected outside the shipyards a few months later, I just shook my head: “This is sheer madness!” I heard people say that a few kilometres from Gdańsk large security squads were massing, getting ready to overpower the strikers but here he was, a few steps away from me, standing on that famous gate endlessly shown by the world’s TV stations all day long, shaking his fists high above his head, taunting the party leadership and the Eastern empire with that brazen smile beneath his black moustache.
My first thought was: “Is this just a nonentity who has by chance been swept to the forefront of events?” But he was no chance nonentity. He emanated the certainty of a born leader. You could not fake that. Compared with him, everyone else appeared too pale, too insubstantial to take the lead. The world’s TV cameras went crazy over him.
He was straight out of the pages of a Sienkiewicz novel: the aristocratic black moustache, the quiff of hair above his forehead, the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down his slender throat. A swashbuckling romantic hero from the shipyards taking on the whole world but still brimming with ordinary people’s common sense, a peasant’s dislike of ardour and passion, and village folks’ craft and cunning. It was as if he had sprung directly from the Polish dream or had been cut out of an illustration in Sienkiewicz’s “The Deluge”. An offspring of minor gentry who made it to governor and brought with him a slew of textile workers, shop assistants and railwaymen. I felt a lump in my throat, so amazed was I to see that after decades of living in a murky symbiosis with the system the grey communized masses of Polish workers had suddenly managed to produce a gem in the Polish national colours. It was as if God himself had parachuted him to Earth.
The great year of 1980 was no carnival
of freedom even if we are now wont to pretend that the women’s hunger marches
on the streets of Łódż and Skierniewice bristled with the energy of a
Today I am on his side but I’m also against him. I do want to be on the side of truth but very few people are interested in the truth about Wałęsa. Some scream that we have to fight against those who see him as “Bolek” (his codename as an alleged secret police informer), others shout that we need to fight against those who do not want to see him as “Bolek”. Poles are at each other’s throats in this matter. And what about the man himself, the shipyard hero of August 1980?
An old, grey man from Gdańsk with a
Virgin Mary on his lapel who holds forth every now and again about his ‘big ideas’
that we let in through one ear and out through the other, even if we’re fond of
him. We say: it doesn’t matter who he is today, all that matters is that he is a
living legend because
He is no longer a human being or a
person - he has turned into
His legend helps to prop up our
sapped self-confidence. But this world needs legends. And that is why we have
to defend Wałęsa’s legend with all our might, as we do our independence, but
equally we must revise and question it just as much. For healthy nations do not
depend on the untouchability of their legends but rather on a balanced
collective mind which, in turn, depends on a dynamic balance between legend and
anti-legend. Truly mature nations can live without a Father and if their
Father’s legend crumbles, it is no big tragedy for them.
Courtly table tennis
I remember that already in the first months of Solidarity something about him grated. He wasn’t nice to people from Solidarity’s National Committee, always convinced that he knew best. He acquired an unpleasant leader-like demeanour which became more apparent later, when he took up the post of Polish President and struck up friendships with people who were all too willing to “adjust” the law to his liking. I admired him for his past, for being able to rebel in the blackest night of communism, for standing up against ‘red power’ even though it exposed his family to risk for years on end, even though he was all alone, as poor as a church mouse, yet never losing his inner balance, for staying normal and ordinary. And for having at his side Danuta, an ordinary, normal Polish woman who knew how to behave under the spotlight of Nobel adoration, and later managed to avoid doing anything silly - something he, sadly, did not manage.
He was completely lost as the
country’s president. He suffered and struggled in a role that was not right for
him. He used to spend hours in the Presidential Palace basement playing table tennis
with eminences grises who were anything but eminent. He was not always able to
control his anti-intellectual complex.
He was happy to boast about not having read any books, which was a very
silly thing to do in a country where only a tiny minority reads books. He was
frustrated, angry, aggressive. And if it
is true that he, as the Head of the
For, however much I valued Wałęsą
for his past achievements, I would have preferred to see in Independent
Poland’s presidential seat someone of
I am the nation
Both intellectuals and non-intellectuals like to lean on Wałęsą because they realize they don’t mean anything without him. This started way back in 1980 and it still happens today. All this waving of the Wałęsą banner, leaning on him, exhorting, just to irritate the conservative-nationalist side whose banner, in turn, is emblazoned with a hatred of “Bolek”.
The current panicky Wałęsą cult (“we have to defend the legend!”) as well as the equally panicky destruction of the myth (“the legend has to be unmasked!”) is further proof of the failure of our intelligentsia, whose members are not able to stand up in their own right when it comes to leadership. Wałęsą - turned into a sign, a thermometer of political heat - continues to be used as a positive or negative reference point by our intelligentsia, a handy prop without which it cannot function. In this respect the man who does not exist, is actually present in a powerful way, exerting an influence over Polish life.
Let’s not fool ourselves - the
Nobel festivities in
However, as we mark the occasion,
we would be well advised to think of the truth, that is to say, to remember the
mark Wałęsą has left on Polish culture. He created it often unconsciously, by
his actions. Suddenly someone appeared
among us, who in an exceptional moment of our national history managed to
concentrate the nation’s collective energy and in a fatally difficult situation
was able to steer this energy in a sensible direction. He did not resemble any
He was the embodiment of the failure of the Polish intelligentsia but perhaps it was his lack of education that helped him find his own path, without any romantic prejudice of the kind that tends to hold back the enlightened classes. Following his youthful error, when he allowed himself to be dragged into contact with the secret police, he managed to keep on the straight and narrow in the most difficult of times. Later on, he did not manage to withdraw from politics in time but that happens to many people, so there is nothing tragic about it. His historical identity is hard to define. He wasn’t really a politician. As a people’s tribune he often blindly felt his way forward but who knows, maybe this saved him from the moralistic rigidity that often befalls many Polish intellectuals. He was not obsessed about his “upright stance” and that enabled him to be flexible in his actions. His peasant ethos, ambiguous contacts with the secret police and his shipyard experience of “pretend work” taught him how to dodge, prevaricate, mix things up and muddy waters tactically, without ever losing sight of the line that had to be followed. And in the key moments he knew how to follow that line.
Is there anything dangerous in his
legend? Human beings crave illusions. He is the first to say that he overthrew
communism. But if he had not had Gorbachov and Yeltsin as his sparring partners
he would not have overthrown anything. He would not have been able to get the
Russians to hand over the Katyń massacre documents, had it been Putin rather
than Gorbachov residing in the Kremlin.
We often say that it was Wałęsą who got the Soviet army out of
The main achievement of Solidarity
and Wałęsą was to demonstrate to the whole world that the Poles had had enough
of communism and that they longed for freedom.
And it was under his leadership that Solidarity turned into the great
manifestation of this longing, the shout that was heard by the whole world. For
the first time in our thousand-year history the whole world learned of our
existence. There was not a country that did not talk about us. And it was under
Wałęsą’s sensible leadership that Solidarity steered a peaceful course while
winning the great battle for media visibility on a global scale, because he
sensed that without winning this battle nothing could be achieved. The world
loved the oversized biro - an object of historic as well as ludic qualities -
he used to sign the August Agreement, because it brought a new tone into
politics. The cloudy realm of social conflict was shot through with a sense of
humour that is adored by mass culture. And the world did love
And so the Western nations not
only got to know about us, they also came to love our manner, and came out in
our support which, in turn, influenced their governments. And that was why the
great powers agreed to a new peaceful division of the ‘spheres of influence’
So, as we mark the Nobel anniversary, let us not levitate above history’s hard reality and as we appreciate the importance of the Laureate’s deeds, let us not wallow in the depths of our national megalomania. History shows that this does not tend to end well for us.
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